From the Studio

thoughts on art and process in action from a contemporary artist

New Projects… and “Normal”

with 7 comments

I have an interesting challenge to work on.  An interactive piece that would be up and interacting with hundreds of people a day for a full year.  That is a challenge in itself… but the subject even more so.

The stated goals of the curator boil down to this:  addressing the concept of “normal” as applied to people with a view towards showing it’s subjectivity/relativity and guiding people into a more open and empathetic view of what “normal” is.

My personal challenge is to find something visual to grab onto and make it interactive.  Oh yes… and to pick some smaller facet of the gigantic concept of “normal” to focus on.  There are so many ways to go with this.  I have a hard time with this because I take for granted the subjectivity and relativity to such a degree my whole life that I have to take a step closer in and try to think IN the box so that I can produce the motion of stepping OUT of it.   So as usual, I’m talking to friends and strangers again.

Resulting thoughts: 

In mathematics the bell curve is “normal”- the whole thing including the tiny parts at the tails that might be considered “deviant” when compared to the Mean but without which the curve is no longer “normal”.

It occurs to me that when people talk about normal, they mean the average as in the Mean, but when they talk about Average, it implies a positive-negative scale from “below average” to “above average” and most people want to think of themselves as about average (meaning average is slightly less of whatever quality than they are).  We see this expressing itself tangibly in grade inflation:  a C isn’t actually average anymore, but a sign of failure.

When most of us think of Normal we think of it in contrast to weird, or Deviant.  Normal is almost a center point of any given culture or micro-culture and the farther you stray from it, the more deviant you are from that particular cultural center (which may put you dead-center in another micro-culture).  The weird thing is that this is only the public face of deviant.   There are many “deviant” behaviors which are in fact “normal” by virtue of being practiced by more than half the population secretly (thank you graduate class in social psychology!).  Most of them involve sex.

Which brings us to another thing- context.  Even allowing for culture and micro cultures, many things are still regulated to a time and place: what is perfectly normal at a New Year’s Eve office party is not normal at the office with the same people the following week. Ritual Space (in which I include things like New Year’s, Mardi Gras, football games)  is designed for accommodating things outside the norm in a marked time and place so it doesn’t mess up the everyday Normal.

When trying to grapple with any of this visually in how it applies to people I find myself drawn irresistibly  to fashion over and over again.  It is how we declare ourselves.  When we go into a ritual space, like Prom for example, we put on special clothes to transform ourselves to fit thoroughly into that space.  Hair and clothing are the parts of our appearance that we have some control over, and I think it’s reasonable to say that they have been used since their earliest existence as social indicators: culture, status, micro-culture, profession, marital status, income, religion, hobbies, sexual orientation, gender orientation… there are ways people show all of these things by what they wear.  People protest the status quo through clothing (think about punks and feminists), and they align to it with clothing.

Clothing also goes through cycles of revolution into status quo.  Today the most average, normal clothing you can wear as a man or woman in the USA is probably jeans and a tee shirt… but in the 50’s those were rebel wear, popularized by James Dean in Rebel without a cause and Marlon Brando in Streetcar named Desire.  “Deviant” often becomes normal over time.  There is  a potential to explore that as well.

I realized that in this case, I don’t want to get into physical differences- unless you have surgery it’s not a personal choice.  Far more interesting to me is self-identification and the expression of it.  So… perhaps this is why I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to fashion.  I’ve been to three fashion exhibits in museums in the past couple months.  I make and design more and more clothing… but until my last sculpture it was a hobby.  I don’t know how it will come into this project yet, but I’m convinced that it is the way to go.  We’ll see what form it takes.

By the way- what does “normal mean to you?

Written by marycoreymarch

June 27, 2011 at 11:50 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I gotta think about this some more before I have anything substantive to say, but in written culture, (it seems to me) what you have is not so much a bell curve as a collection of narratives and narrative voices, some of which are in keeping with the cultural default and some of which aren’t; the non-default ones tend to get ignored. And so I want immediately to point you at the online poetry-and-criticism journal Stone Telling, which seeks out these non-default narratives and showcases them.


    June 28, 2011 at 12:06 am

    • Thank you for sharing the link with me, I read a few of the poems so far and enjoyed them. I collect folklore from around the world, and my BA in in the History of religions from around the world, so I look forward to reading more.

      Math was one of the more alien (to me) perspectives I was addressing the idea of normal from, and a perspective introduced by programmer friends. My mother (like her mother before her) is a cultural anthropologist, a student of Margaret Mead, the recipient of the Margaret Mead Award for cultural anthropology work, and she was raised in Guatemala. My father (a sociologist) shared her understanding of cultural relativity.

      I was raised Unitarian Universalism (which some people say isn’t a religion)- where you learn about many religions and take lessons from them all, alongside philosophy, science, personal experience and discussion. Some UUs are agnostic, some are Buddhist, some are Christian or Pagan, even Atheist, but a a unifying belief that everyone has their own path, that we have a lot to learn from each other, and that we should do our part to make the world a better place. The result is that the multiplicity of voices, cultures, and micro-cultures is something I took for granted for as long as I can remember. I take for granted that every individual has their own unique story and identity.

      So… I needed to take a step backward and talk to other people to think about this project, because I don’t really believe in any absolute “normal”. …of course most of my friends don’t either… so I need to talk to strangers too.


      June 28, 2011 at 2:11 am

    • The short response is- yes, things like these poems are “normal” and comfortable for me as a way to look at what people are in a real way. The concept of normal is an interesting one to grapple with though (since I don’t believe in it exactly), but it is a concept that people think in, and many people do believe in and so it’s an interesting challenge to grapple with. So I’m after a different kind of outside perspective… for me (which means trying to figure out where most people in the US are starting and also or looking for “objective” measurements whether I believe in them or not).


      June 28, 2011 at 2:22 am

  2. I love that you’re wandering toward fashion in thinking about approaching normal in a visual way. I think one of the things that’s really interesting about fashion is that while you can define “proper” attire for a particular event — black-tie gala, beach bonfire, casual picnic, cocktail party, rock concert/music festival, etc., there is still a considerable variation in how different social groups will define “normal” within those constraints.


    June 28, 2011 at 4:44 am

    • Absolutely. I kept getting drawn to it and pulling back, but eventually I decided it was a no-brainer- hair and clothing are the visual/exterior things about ourselves that we can control to some degree and we use them to communicate identity. I decided I wanted to stay more visual, and within visual stay with what we decide to be rather than the exterior we just happened to get.


      June 30, 2011 at 1:58 am

    • …now the tricky part is deciding HOW…. I have ideas, but they are still free-floating.


      June 30, 2011 at 1:59 am

  3. Along these lines, one of the things that fascinates me about editorial/high-fashion photography lately is this trend toward putting a piece of clothing in an environment that has some tension/dialogue with what that clothing might otherwise communicate, e.g. couture gown photographed with the model walking out of the ocean or on a hillside tending a flock of sheep or in a supermarket selecting frozen dinners. (Oddly, it’s much less common to see casual clothing placed in a rich environment, but the contrast still makes for an interesting thought experiment — how do you put jeans and a t-shirt in a place like Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors without it reading “tourist”?)


    June 30, 2011 at 4:12 am

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